One rainy afternoon, Lucy and I needed cookies and apple cider. It was just what the day required. Wanting to try something new, I dug out one of my trusty cookbooks, James Peterson’s Baking. Since Mr. Peterson is pretty much a recipe guru, I was curious how he would prepare something as simple and classic as a chocolate chip cookie.
Although they required much more butter and much less sugar than other cookie recipes, the ingredients were otherwise straightforward. And unlike my all-time favorite Compost Cookies, the dough came together quickly and was easy to work with.
My trouble with the recipe began during baking. I set my oven to 375F, lined my baking sheets with parchment paper, and dutifully measured the chilled dough into 2 tablespoon scoops as per the recipe. It said to press the scoops of dough down onto the baking sheet with a greased palm or the bottom of a drinking glass. I thought this was strange and would take the volume out of the cookies, but did so anyway.
After 12 minutes in the oven (not 15, as the recipe recommended), the first batch of cookies were—you guessed it—as flat as a pancake. Nearly burned around the edges, and so crisp that several broke when I moved them.
For the second batch I didn’t press the cookies down and simply placed the dough balls on the baking sheet. After 12 minutes, this batch came out better: taller, softer, and much, much more pleasing to look at.
I was a little stupefied. Did I mis-read the ingredients and do something wrong? Is my oven off by 50 degrees? And if I did everything right, how could such a well-respected cookbook contain such a crappy recipe?
Even these pretty, puffed-up cookies weren’t the best tasting. As doughy as they look, they were much too cakey for my taste. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t expect this to be the ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe. I tried it to attempt something new, and new it was.
We’re not all perfect and we’re all prone to screw ups in the kitchen. This cookie debacle reminded me to trust my instincts when I’m cooking. I knew that I shouldn’t have pressed the cookies down just as I knew that the butter and sugar amounts seemed odd. But instead of going with my gut, I followed the recipe to the tee. It was uncharacteristic of me to do this—usually I tweak every recipe I use to my own specifications.
I was being who I loathed in the kitchen: the cook who doesn’t take risks, who takes recipes at face value, who is scared to substitute olive oil for extra virgin olive oil. Cooking can be an exact science if you want it to be. But it can also be creative, flexible and fun. I know what I like more than a cookbook does.
From now on I vow to keep screwing up. I already mess up at least one dish per week. Maybe I’ll make a new goal of two. I’m not going to learn a thing if I don’t attempt new recipes, experiment with ingredients, play with measurements. And isn’t part of the fun of being in the kitchen seeing what you can create, off the recipe page? I can’t promise my daughter the perfect chocolate chip cookies the next time she asks for some. But we’ll get there eventually through trial, error, and lots of tasty mistakes along the way.